When John Wick hit in 2014, its incredible world-building was one of the key ways in which it pulled ahead of the action pack. This universe had an immense sense of lore and history in its detailed portrayal of the secret underworld economy of not only assassins and criminals, but janitors and hotel personnel.
The sequels pushed this to the limit, and while the gun-fu action was as violent and potent as ever, the lore felt more burdensome. John’s own backstory seemed better left mysterious, and the idea of a city (indeed, a world) full of hitmen around every corner strained credulity.
But where the sequels have not quite hit the highest notes of the original, John Wick 4 excels in deriving new meaning out of the tale of the unlucky hitman (Keanu Reeves) by introducing some characters that he’s presumably tried to leave out of his troubles: his oldest friends. Where prior chapters have been based on revenge, rules, and shaky alliances, this one hearkens back to the grander themes of classic action cinema: honor and brotherhood.
For John Wick 4 is something that the three prior films in the series are not…
A heroic bloodshed film.
And in that lofty respect, it’s the best one that isn’t directed by John Woo.
Compelling supporting characters like Continental Hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane), his right-hand man Charon (RIP, the great Lance Reddick), and the “Bowery King” of the streets (Laurence Fishburne) make their return, but leave plenty of room for new characters to enter the fold.
Much of the groundwork for modern western action cinema was laid by Japanese Yakuza and samurai films, and Hong Kong’s kung fu and Triad movies. John Wick 4 cherry-picks three of the greatest living legends of these three worlds, with Scott Adkins, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Donnie Yen upping the ante once again for the most stacked assemblage of fighters to grace the series yet.
The story finds a new villain in “The Marquis” (Bill Skarsgård), a man of relentless cruelty who fills the power vacuum in the High Table, weakened by the events of the prior films. He hires blind master assassin Caine (Yen) to take out John Wick once and for all. Caine’s an old associate and friend of John, but is loyal to his oath to the Table and obediently sets about carrying out their command.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is John’s most trusted old friend Shimazu (Sanada), who places brotherhood above formal allegiance, and pledges not only his sword, but his entire dominion as the manager of the Osaka Continental, in John’s defense. Thus is set the triangle that serves as the tale’s deepest and most dynamic conflict of one-time brothers, pitted against each other by circumstance or choice.
And yet, the film’s most entertaining fight belongs to modern DTV action star Scott Adkins, whose fat-suited gangster “Killa” is, while not as integral as a character, the most fun to watch, in an extensive action sequence pitted against Wick in a raucous neon-lit nightclub full of mostly-oblivious partiers.
When Douglas Adams released his novel “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” in 1984, it was jokingly advertised as the “The fourth book in the Hitch-Hiker Trilogy”. A similar description feels apt here, for John Wick 4 feels like a hell of a trilogy-closer — it’s just not a trilogy.
Director Chad Stahelski and others close to the project have hinted that the film may be the last one in the series. To that end, it’s the best film in a series with no weak entries, elevated by loftier ideas, and — without spoiling anything — ends in a satisfying finale that, and if this is indeed the last one, is a grand conclusion, bringing back one weighty element from the original that wasn’t as evident in 2 and 3:
It’s got a lot of heart.